As a psychotherapist in private practice with expats in New Delhi, and around the world using Skype, I have noticed what I call the perfectionist syndrome in expats the world over. First, let me distinguish between the pursuit of excellence and being a perfectionist. When I am pursuing excellence, I am happy about what I’m doing or learning, feeling good about myself and am gaining confidence in my ability.Perfectionism, on the other hand, involves focusing on my mistakes and what I may have done wrong, no matter how well I’m doing. The end result is always bad feelings because as humans we are imperfect beings. It also involves trying to look good in other people’s eyes, which results in wanting to hide our mistakes, which in turn inhibits our ability to learn from them. A child makes all A’s and one B, and all it takes is a raised eyebrow from a parent for the child to get the message that she’s not done well enough. In future years, she may come to dread bringing report cards home as she learns that the best strategy is to hide a less than perfect grade from her parents.
Sarah is a British expat and mother of 2 young children teaching in an Asian International School. Her husband Dan is a high-powered journalist who travels frequently. She came to counseling because she felt like ‘everything was falling apart’ and related the following incident: The weekend before she contacted me her family was invited to a birthday party given by fellow teachers at her school. Her husband was traveling, so she took her children to the party. On the way, her 2 year old daughter had a melt down and wouldn’t stop crying because her 4 year old brother had hit her. Sarah punished her son with a time out, but by then they had arrived at the party. She walked in with one screaming child and one sullen one. She handed over her daughter to the first adult who reached out for her and tried to involve her reluctant son in playing games, unsuccessfully. Sarah described feeling mortified because everyone else seemed to have it all together. Their children were all playing nicely and the adults were enjoying one another’s company. To further complicate her bad feelings, it seemed to her that everyone looked relaxed and at ease, where she felt like a frazzled frump!
Anton had recently been hired in his home country to head up an operation in India which would manufacture auto parts to be sold in Europe. His first task was to hire a local work force, with the assistance of his Indian partner. Most of this was to be done by the partner due to Anton’s lack of familiarity with Indian hiring practices. When his team was assembled and Anton talked about his expectations, the staff was completely non-responsive. In the ensuing weeks and months, it went from bad to worse as the home company had a set of expectations and results that were nowhere near what the Indian staff could or would perform. Moreover, the Indian staff would not come to work on time and took frequent holidays and sick leave. Anton was in the unenviable position of trying to explain the behavior of the staff on the ground to his home office, which didn’t have a clue about the work ethic in India. Anton came to see me because he felt under constant pressure and that it was impossible for him to succeed. Further, the stress of trying to impress his boss in France in order to keep his job, was taking its toll on his relationships at home.
What Sarah and Anton have in common is that they are both “socially prescribed perfectionists”. According to Randy O. Frost, Professor of Psychology at Smith College in the U.S., these perfectionists tend not to derive much pleasure form their work itself, and tend to view what they do as inferior or not meeting up to someone else’s expectations. They also experience external pressure and/or coercion to accomplish tasks which they see as unrealistic. Because of this, they try to hide their mistakes and feel shame in so doing.
In Anton’s case, one could argue that the external pressure he was experiencing was real. His boss in his home country did have expectations that tasks would be accomplished within a certain time frame. While this is true, how Anton chose to respond to the external situation was up to him. For example, he could have explained to his boss, for example, that it was not possible for his Indian staff to accomplish the work in the specified time frame, instead of personalizing it and seeing it as his failure to perform.
Sarah was judging herself according to some unrealistic norm that she was projecting onto her co-workers at the party. It is a common lament of expat women that ‘everyone seems to have it all together but me.’ However, I have yet to meet or talk with any of these so-called “together” women. When Sarah’s less than perfect children were seen by her colleagues, she was mortified because she felt exposed and shamed by how she imagined others were judging her.
Perfectionism seems to be a trait that both expat men and women have in common. Expats are typically high achieving Type A personalities. They would not be hired for their challenging overseas positions if they weren’t. And high achievers seem to seek out high achieving partners, so the non working spouse also tends to be a high achiever with perfectionist tendencies.
Please keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with being a high achiever. To the contrary, there is much to be gained from pursuing excellence in any form. But for those who Frost labels socially prescribed perfectionists, the focus is more on what they’re not accomplishing than on what they are. They are never good, rich, beautiful, thin, productive, or whatever enough to meet their internal demands, which they then project on to others in their environment. This is why they are chasing an illusive, impossible dream.
So, if you recognize yourself as an expat perfectionist, what can you do to lessen the pressure on yourself? Here are some tips:
Top 10 Tips for Withdrawal from Perfectionism
1. Slow down! When you rush around you miss what is happening in the moment, which is all we ever have anyway.
2. Live each day as if the people you love are the most important aspect of your life and prioritize accordingly.
3. Focus not only on your flaws, but on your gifts and talents as well. Flaws are often our misused gifts!
4. Remember that you can only change yourself, which may have a positive impact on those around you, but you have to do it for yourself first.
5. Imagine that your negative self-talk has a volume control and turn down the volume. This works better than trying to eliminate the voice altogether.
6. When you become aware of negative self talk, ask yourself what is actually true in this situation. Not sugar-coated, just the unadorned truth.
7. Come out! Hiding mistakes and weaknesses causes shame. Dare to risk letting the world know who you really are, which gives other people permission to be themselves too.
8. Play and develop a sense of humor, especially about yourself.
9. Focus on your successes, including a budding ability to take better care of yourself.
10. Remember that as humans we are by nature imperfect beings. We are perfectly imperfect!